Contributing Writer; Queens, New York (@jaceycockrobin)
The Sunset Limited, Cormac McCarthy's one-act novel in dramatic form, is all about the dialog.

The Sunset Limited, Tommy Lee Jones' HBO adaptation of McCarthy's play, is all about the characters delivering that dialog.

The plot of both is simple: White, a suicidal nihilist who believes knowledge is responsible for his malaise, attempts to end his life via oncoming subway train. Black, a religious ex-con full of hope and goodwill, prevents White from completing said task, and takes the man back to his apartment for a rousing discussion on the very meaning of existence.

This is Cormac McCarthy we're talking about, so yeah, it's as heavy as it sounds.

On the page, we are treated to McCarthy's robust existential musings, sans distraction. Let's be honest- the man knows how to make a conversation flow. And while many of his novels feature terse or minimal dialog, The Sunset Limited causes the levees to break. Put that torrent of words in the right actors' mouths, put them on stage, and the audience will treat you to a pin-dropper's paradise. Any attempt to capture that magic on film, however, entails a whole different set of risks.

These were risks producer/director/actor Tommy Lee Jones, a McCarthy vet, was willing to take. Somehow, he convinced HBO to bankroll the thing, despite the fact that it's basically two guys talking about god and death for 90 minutes, and the whole thing takes place in a single room. I guess it didn't hurt that he hedged his bets by casting the ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson.

Which reminds me, it's good to see Sam The Man flexing his atrophied dramatic muscles. Welcome back from the land of the walking punchlines, buddy! We missed you.

It is obvious from the start that this is Jackson's show. Black is in complete control of the situation as he tries to figure out what makes his new ward tick. Jones, conversely, plays White like a field mouse on antidepressants- all twitchy with nervous quiet. This results in an awkward, rapid fire tete-a-tete straight out of His Girl Friday during the opening moments of the film, which I found to be a little jarring. But eventually the two actors settle in and begin to develop a rhythm, one that maintains momentum and builds towards a climax of both epiphany and doubt. It is in these final moments that Jones comes alive, turning on the presence like only he can, as White turns the tables on Black and puts the man's faith to the test. 

So if you are a fan of McCarthy, theater, existentialism, great dialog, or heavyweight actors going toe-to-toe, you'll probably want to check this out. If you don't like McCarthy, theater, existentialism, great dialog, or heavyweight actors going toe-to-toe, you'll probably want to skip.

As an aside, I'd kill to see a stage production of this starring Nicolas Cage and Keith David. 


I'm not really much of a techie, so this review is mainly about the film itself. The Sunset Limited isn't a flashy piece of work, and therefore doesn't require the visual gloss of a summer spectacle. And, like most movies filmed since the advent of Blu-ray, it makes the transition to the format rather uneventfully. If someone more technically savvy wants to bitch me out for failing to chart bitrates or measure contrast levels, feel free. I can at least verify that Black was black, and White was pretty damn white. 

Sound-wise, we're really only dealing with dialog here. That and some minimal scoring. Although I will say, I watched the film with the DTS track, which made subtle use of screeching trains, jazz musicians blowing, and the sounds of crackheads killing each other on the surround channels. A very nice touch indeed.

As far as extras, we're given a "making of," which is basically a five minute promo trailer. It does contain a glimpse of the reclusive McCarthy, so that's a plus.  And speaking of McCarthy, the real gem here is the audio commentary, which features Jones, Jackson, and the M man himself. I haven't actually listened to it, but McCarthy rarely speaks publicly, so if he's saying shit, you know it's worth a listen.

Joshua Chaplinsky is the senior editor for He also writes for He was a guitarist in the band SpeedSpeedSpeed, and is the poison pen behind thejamminjabber, although he's not so sure he should admit it.

The Sunset Limited

  • Tommy Lee Jones
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • Cormac McCarthy (play)
  • Samuel L. Jackson
  • Tommy Lee Jones
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Tommy Lee JonesCormac McCarthySamuel L. JacksonDrama

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